Chris Anderson has a new book called "Free." I haven't read this. I also didn't read this article that summarizes the book, but you can if you want to. There's also a video, which i didn't watch. If I was an economist or getting really serious about working out these economic theories, i'd have to read both of Anderson's books (he also wrote "The Long Tail") but for now i've got the concepts behind them, and it's enough to go on.
What i did read is Malcolm Gladwell's review, which summarizes and critiques Anderson's idea well enough to get me started here.
Anderson is on to something, but he's also dead wrong for the reasons Gladwell goes into (read the Gladwell if you wanna be able to follow the rest of this post). The thing is: Free does happen. Anderson is only wrong because he doesn't realize that his iron law makes The New Economy a total hurns. Giving people what they want for free and then charging them for extras they don't want? Call me crazy, but that seems like a terrible hopeless business plan.
Gladwell gets this, but doesn't really respond. Like Gladwell, I recognize the cheap hopelessness of the New Economy and the New Media, that these New things are wiping out the Old Economy and Old Media only to replace them with insubstantial, unreliable, mediocre nothingness. Like Lear's daughters (to reference a recent Shakespeare project) The New Economy is poisoning the Old Economy and then killing itself. This economic process has an entropic effect: society (art, culture, politics, whatever) are heading toward the situation of the most even distribution of energy, turning everything into bland grey colored lukewarm mush. See the concept of "existential liberalism" found in the Call for the political ramifications of this, hint: there's violence, lots of it.
Gladwell offers no solutions, seems to think the old economy will somehow persevere. But, as unsustainable as it is, the (perhas sad) fact is, Free does happen. Going with the YouTube example, Anderson thinks YouTube is free because bandwith is almost free. Gladwell corrects him, that almost free X billions = really fucking expensive, and cites the losses YouTube is suffering as an example.
Right. But, what is YouTube supposed to do about it? Start charging? Pay for content to attract advertisers? Fold? If youtube starts costing money to use, or closes up shop, then people will simply start posting and watching videos elsewhere for free. Replacements already exist (vimeo, peer to peer, bit torrents, etc). Golly, you can even get that copyrighted content youtube is paying for, free! We live in a situation where anything digitally or virtually reproducable is or can easily be made available for free.
How can you make people pay for it? Enforcing intellectual property rights law is one option, one which Gladwell seems to advocate. Problem is, all libertarian or punk-rock anti-authority sentiment aside, enforcing laws costs money. Lobbying the government to prioritize these laws over all the other laws is expensive, especially when other laws lobbied for by special interests with more popular support than the RIAA are easier to enforce. The end result is still that TV and Hollywood movies will continue to cost more to produce while bringing in less profit. If Hollywood passes on these lobbying costs to consumers, more consumers will watch cheaper stuff, found stuff, or archived stuff, or stuff made by producers with less overhead and profit requirement.
So, what to do? Accept failure? Give up on art? No. There's something that'll exist on the other side of this, a post-new-economy situation is possible, and it's one i'm personally very excited about. How exchange and distribution in the post-new-economy will work is simple: producers will offer things for free, and people will pay for them anyway.
What? Why? HOW? It's a post-capitalist relation of distribution, which befits a post-capitalist relation of production. Start by looking at the social norm that makes the basics of capitalism work. It's called "civil society" and it's sort of like Kant's catagorical imperative. The reason most of us don't steal what we want from a store is because we know that if everyone stole everything they wanted from the store, the store would have to close, nobody would be able to get what we need, and it'd be a resounding hurns all around. Granted, there are laws and security gaurds and little magnetic beeping things, but those are for the deviants, the people who don't accept these social norms and decide not to participate in civil society. Such things could not work if everyone became a shoplifter.
When it comes to digital media, because it's so close to free, and because the RIAA are such bastards and Hollywood is so shallow and cheap, the rules of civil society no longer apply at all. Everyone is willing to be a pirate, some people pride themselves on it. Ripping the system is a political act for some: the celebratory destruction of an economy that alienates, exploits and worst of all bores them. Security systems effective against a whole population of shoplifters and pirates will cost more than it saves.
This isn't a matter of my preferences. I'm not a theif, and honestly pre-capitalist (ie mafia) economics scare the shit out of me (and should scare you too). This isn't what i want to see happening, it's what i do see happening. If someone has a reasonable alternative explanation or some way to show that this isn't happening, i'd love to hear about it. Maybe i should read more of Anderson's book, but if Malcolm Gladwell can't find anything in it, i probably won't either.
In the meantime, we should either start developing a taste for lukewarm flavorless grey mush, or start making some reverse entropy. Specifically we need a new social norm where people WANT to pay for something, not because they're afraid the store will close, but because they love and want to connect and support the person who created the something.
How do we get there? This is the point where we can talk about spirital awakenings, new moralities, advanced ethics, pantheism, post-dualistic conceptions of self, social alchemy and any number of other quasi-religious methods of social control. But you'll have to talk to other people about that stuff, cuz it makes my head spin, and i suspect it's been talked about beyond the point of the words meaning anything anymore already.
The question i'm more interested in answering is: what if we're already there? The fate of YouTube, facebook and Hollywood can't tell us this. There's no connection, no good reason to give those bastards our money. The only producers who can survive in this post-capitalist economy are ones that establish a direct connection with their consumers. A genuine direct connection, not facebook's mimicry of connection.
I see examples all the time. Last saturday two friends and I went to a show advertised as FREE and dropped $20 in a "donations please" jar. I hope we weren't the only ones. I don't think we were. We stood in a room with the entire production team, talked with them, saw their peformance, loved it, and gave them some money cuz we're anxiously awaiting their next show.
The upcoming Ulysses' Crewmen tour will be testing this hypothetical system. For many of our shows we will only succeed if a post-capitalist economy already exists, these shows are going to be free, with donations requested. The results of this experiment will be dutifully reported on this blog as the tour progresses. Because if we want people to give us money for no reason other than they think we're worth supporting, transparency is absolutely necessary. Maybe we're too early. Maybe we'll fail utterly. But we'll never make it over this grey lukewarm puddle of mush if we don't all start trying to jump sooner or later.
7 hours ago